Why More Sleep Could Help Children Do Better In School

Good sleep is important no matter what age you happen to find yourself. That said, the importance of sleep in children surpasses everything ...

Good sleep is important no matter what age you happen to find yourself. That said, the importance of sleep in children surpasses everything else. In the early years of their life, our little ones go through an astonishing amount of physical and mental development. Between birth and the age of three, a baby’s brain will triple in weight and 1,000 trillion neural connections will be established. Mind boggling stuff! Such rapid development requires a lot of energy and a lot of rest, that’s why they sleep so very much in the early part of their lives.

If an infant’s sleep is regularly broken or they simply don’t get enough, then it can have profound and lasting consequences on the development of their mental capacities. An impact that can have a very real effect on how they will be able to perform academically. The importance of sleep continues as our children grow older and begin to attend school. Below we take a look at why more sleep plays such a vital role in academic performance.

Sleeping Child

Poor sleep in infancy

Sleep-deprivation in adults has been an extensively researched field of academia, many good resources exist that share the results of such studies. The same however cannot be said about sleep-deprivation in children. While many studies have been conducted few are truly longitudinal in nature. This is mainly due to quite natural ethical concerns about deliberately keeping young children awake. We can’t go keeping the nippers up all night, can we?

One of the most important pieces of research to have taken place on children and sleep to date is a fascinating British study known as the Millenium Cohort. This study followed closely the development of 11,000 children born in the year 2000-1. Researchers found that children who slept less between the ages of 0-3 noticeably lagged behind their contemporaries academically by the age of 7.

The poor sleepers were shown to be less proficient in reading, maths, and even spacial awareness. Professor Amanda Slacker, a researcher from University College London examined the Millenium Cohort data and explains what she believes is the problem:
"If a child is having irregular bedtimes at a young age, they're not synthesizing all the information around them at that age, and they've got a harder job to do when they are older. It sets them off on a more difficult path."

A similar Canadian study published in the journal Sleep also found that infants who went to bed later and slept less were also more likely to have difficulties with language development and more were more likely to suffer from attention-related problems in later life, such as ADHD. Scary stuff!

Sleep and concentration

Just as poor sleep in infancy can lead to children lagging behind their contemporaries, so can poor sleep in childhood and adolescence. If a child sleeps badly their cognitive performance is seriously impaired, meaning they are at a disadvantage compared to their well-rested classmates.

A recent piece of research compared two groups of children aged 7-11. One group were perfectly healthy sleepers the other was diagnosed sleep apnea sufferers. Both groups were given the same set of tasks, a Stroop color-word task designed to measure cognitive performance and a second task designed to measure empathy. Looking at the results on paper both groups performed equally well.

However, when the researchers conducting the study examined the fMRI brain scans taken during the tests, the children who suffered from sleep apnea were shown to have significantly more activity in the areas of the brain dedicated to attention allocation. In plain English, this means the brains of the tired children were having to work considerably harder to achieve exactly the same results as the well-rested kids.

Think of it as swimming against current, poor sleepers have to swim hard just to stay in the same place. In the long-term, this is untenable and will lead to obvious lapses in concentration. The result is an inability to keep up in class and a resultant drop in academic achievement.

Happy Child

Final Thoughts

So, just how much of an impact does sleep-deprivation have on academic performance? Well, that’s to do with the child and with how much sleep is missed. Dr. Guy Meadows, a prominent sleep psychologist, believes the amount doesn’t actually have to be that significant to have a considerable impact, explaining that:
“Some research showed that if children are sleep-deprived by just an hour a night, it could reduce their cognitive academic performance by up to two whole years”. Dr. Meadows goes on to argue that teaching children the importance of good sleep should be an essential and compulsory part of any curriculum, stating that sleep is "one of the most powerful performance-enhancers known to humankind."

While it can be difficult to get the little one off to bed on time every night, it's essential you do everything in your power as a parent to create good routines and a suitable sleeping environment. Sleep is vitally important at any age but more so at a young age. Without meaning to sound overly dramatic, your child’s academic future is at stake.

Contributed By: Sarah

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